How to use clipless pedals

Don't be scared of making the switch to a more efficient pedal system

Clipless – or, more accurately, clip-in – pedal systems have been used by most serious cyclists since Look applied step-in ski-binding technology to bikes in 1984. Then Bernard Hinault rode it to Tour de France victory in ’85 and there was no going back.

Once you too have experienced the efficiency of having your foot fixed on the pedal throughout its cycle, you’ll be hooked. But switching can be intimidating, so we sought out British Cycling qualified coaches Andy Cook and his wife Jacqui, of www.andycookcycling.com, for help.  

Different types of pedal/shoe

Most shoes and pedals fall into two categories: road (such as Shimano SPD-SL, Time and LOOK), which use a three bolt system, and off-road (such as Shimano SPD, crankbrothers and Time A-Tac), which use a two-bolt system. Both systems use a plastic or metal cleat fixed to the bottom of the shoe. However there's nothing to stop you using a two-bolt system on a road bike if you prefer the stability of mountain bike shoes for walking around.

Cleat setup – road

A good bike shop can help you affix the cleats to your shoes. If you do it yourself, start by positioning the cleat underneath the ball of your foot, and make sure it's on straight. After you have both cleats on, hop on your bike and lean against a wall or a doorway where you can’t fall over, and pedal backwards for a few minutes. At this point you can adjust the fore/aft of the cleats and even your saddle height to get comfortable.

If you need to change the angle – if your feet naturally point inwards or outwards and you can feel some discomfort – sit on the edge of a table with your legs dangling off the side, your shoes resting on a rectangular piece of paper, with the edge perpendicular to the table. Draw around your shoes, then place the cleats on the outlines so they’re still square to the table edge. The angle between the centre line of your shoes and the edge of the paper (centre line of cleat) is your cleat angle.

Cleat setup – mountain bike

With mountain bike cleats, line up your markers so you can position the cleat in both directions, both fore and aft in relation to the axle and its angle in relation to your shoe. Tighten down the bolts just enough to keep them firmly in place. Try not to let them dig into the sole of the shoe, because the indentations left will make fine-tuning harder – carbon soles are more resistant. Don’t use any grease just yet.

With your shoes back on, balance yourself against a wall and clip in. Your legs should hang naturally down, without any noticeable stress on your joints. Check how much float there is to either side – the amount of lateral movement before the cleat disengages – to ensure it’s even. If there’s any discomfort, adjust the cleat until everything feels good.

If you’re fitting cleats to a new set of shoes, you’ll need to spend some time finding the optimal place in which to position them. With your riding shoes on, but without any cleats fitted, sit on your bike and hang your right foot down in a natural pedalling position. Mark a spot on the outside of the shoe to show where the cleat sits in the fore and aft relation to the axle. Roughly speaking, the cleat should sit under the ball of the foot.

How to use the clipless pedals

You clip yourself into the pedals by sliding the front of the cleat under the catch on the pedal and pressing down hard with your heel. When you clip in you should both hear and feel the engagement. To release your foot, twist your heel out to the side. With some practise you'll be able to do this consistently.

The best way to practice is to start by leaning against a wall, clipping in and out of the pedals until you get the hang out it. Then progress to a quiet road or better yet, a smooth, grassy area. Beware of sudden stops if in an urban area, such as junctions, narrow streets (where traffic is reduced to a single lane) and traffic lights. You'll find that it's best to unclip your feet before you reach junctions and traffic lights.

And don't worry if you do fall off as you get used to using them. It's happened to the best of us.

Clip-in tips

1 If you’re nervous of full-on roadie pedals and you’re primarily a commuter, we’d recommend pedals that you can clip into from either side – double-sided pedals. Pedals that you clip into on one side but have a flat platform on the other are also handy if you would like to also sometimes ride in ‘normal’ shoes.

2 “Before you jump on your bike,” says Andy, “don’t forget to first slacken off each pedal’s spring tension as far as it will go, so it’s as easy as it can be to clip out when you need to.”

3 “Don’t try unclipping both feet at the same time,” says Jacqui. “And if you’re at all unsure, practise unclipping while holding onto a fence, or in a doorway or narrow hallway. Try to use a quick, clean, positive outwards swivel of your heel rather than a gradual, slow movement.”

4 Your shoe choice will be dictated by the type of pedal you go for. “A touring or mountain bike shoe with a knobbly sole makes a great commuting choice,” says Andy, “because you can apply pressure on the pedal without fear of your foot slipping off, no matter how the pedal happens to be aligned.” This is particularly handy if your ride means you need to keep clipping in and out at traffic lights.

5 If you intend to do much walking in your cycling shoes, a mountain bike/tourer-style shoe almost always has a recess along the middle of the sole for the cleat, so it won’t skid noisily on the floor. The recess also helps guide your cleat into place.

6 If you’re using Look-style pedals, keep an eye on cleat wear in your shoes. “You’ll wear it so thin that a big effort such as a climb will snap it,” says Andy. “Most cleats have wear markers, and you can get cleat covers for easier walking too.”

7 Don’t forget to look after your clipless system – a lack of maintenance could stop you clipping in or out smoothly and cause a fall. Beware of getting your pedals clogged with dirt too.  

8 If you’re having trouble engaging the pedal, check the lugs on your shoes aren’t getting in the way. You may need to cut back some of the rubber around the cleat with a Stanley knife for added clearance.

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